Thursday, November 26, 2015

Lecture Performed Socratically

In a New York Times Sunday Review (17 October 2015, “Lecture Me.  Really.”), Molly Worthen debated on the importance of the lecture as a teaching format as opposed to the group discussion.  It prompted me to think more about lecture as teaching. 

 It is true that a good lecture, well delivered, teaches students not only to listen actively but also to organize thoughts efficiently, much better than a group discussion. She fully recognizes, too, that the key to a good lecture is delivery; she writes that she rehearses the detailed script thoroughly and know it “well enough to riff when inspiration strikes,” and does “pace around, wave my arms, and call out questions.”   In short, a good lecture is a performance.  This does not mean mere histrionics.  A good lecturer must know how to edit the complex material so as to facilitate the aural reception and realize it into a well-articulated oral presentation such that the argument is crystal clear; the lecturer must learn to be a playwright and then an able performer.  A scholarly article published in print is fine for sight reading but not for lecturing; boring professors are those who fail to understand this fact and read their text, adhering to the Old French etymology of the word lecture, which indeed means reading, and they give the lecture format a bad name as a teaching method.  Then, too, there are students who assiduously take notes verbatim, hearing and recording the words and letting the sense of the lecture slip by until comes the time to read their notes for the exam.  A lecture, simply read aloud, might as well be distributed in print to be read individually at leisure. 

The importance of this distinction between lecture as reading and lecture as performance was not sufficiently made clear by the author of the Sunday review.  Lectures read aloud do not teach listening; only lectures well performed teaches listening attentively and successfully transmits the art of argumentation and solid thinking. 

I claim that the best teaching occurs in a Socratic dialogue, ideally one on one, in a sequence of question and answer.  In this situation, the teacher has the luxury of knowing more precisely what the student knows and does not know, what she or he understood or failed to understand, and thus what can be skipped and what reinforced, proceeding thus step by step with maximum efficiency. The seminar with a group of students is a guided discussion as we find in Plato’s all-night Symposium.  A successful seminar therefore has the professor playing the role of Socrates, who guides and oversee the discussion, challenging the class, as a well-focused multiple-channel dialogue such that a student-led discussion can achieve only sporadically.  With an audience larger than can be managed in a seminar format we compromise and shift the weight from the group discussion to the professor’s lecture but without losing the benefit of teaching by dialogue, if the lecturer learns to address the class collectively and severally.  This is what many good lecturers know almost instinctively or else by effort; there are inevitably professors who never seem to learn it.   A good storyteller can make any story engaging and persuades the audience to listen.  Lecture as performance does the same.  I say that it must be designed and delivered Socratically.  

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Yogini with Mynah Bird

Friends called my attention to this remarkable painting Yogini with Mynah (Freer/Sackler, 1603/04, opaque watercolor and gold on paper, India Karnataka, Islamic court of Bijapur), and it prompted me to gaze at it and scrutinize it. 

The arbitrary scale in the landscape, like the overscaled plants in the middle ground, is conventional enough in a non-European work like this one; the oddity is apparent only when viewed with the perspectival perception ingrained in the Western tradition.  The detail that I find befuddling is the bird, perched on the woman’s right hand, which turns the head completely upside down, an anatomically well-nigh impossible position.  With its beak close to the mouth of the woman, the artist, we can be certain, designed it to draw the viewer’s attention to focus on the relationship between the Yogini and the bird, and we are forced to ponder on it.  

Reading a picture is a risky business.  Since the mynah, like the parrot, is a bird that “talks,” one may be tempted to to understand that the bird is conversing with the yogini, or, since the woman’s mouth is closed she may be only listening to what the bird is saying.  One interpretation, mistakenly speaks of “the lady whispering to her talking bird” ( This writer, moreover, doubts the lady is a yogini but believes her to be possibly "Balqis, the Queen of Sheba.” Another writer reads the yogini’s gaze differently: "The mynah, perched on her arm was playfully speaking with her or maybe tugging at one of the pearls from her earrings but the yogini appeared to be in a trance, looking beyond the bird, beyond everything." ( The yogini may SEEM to be whispering to the bird or only listening to it.  She may SEEM to be gazing or contemplating, or she may be merely gazing without seeing anything.  Then, the mynah may be talking or just listening except that a mynah, by convention, is understood to talk.  When we read a picture of a bird or any animal, we engage ourselves in an anthropomorphic projection. 

Mention of anthropomorphism may at first seem to make light of the sense of deep communication between the yogini and the bird.  But instilling a human character in any non-human creature, from mammals down to fishes is an act of COMPASSION, and it allows us to talk, say, to a fish, even, though it may not respond.  Compassion is a one-way traffic, unlike communication which assumes correspondence, that is, answering each other.  Between two individuals, on the other hand, there is never a complete comprehension.  one never fully fathom what is in the mind of her or his interlocutor from the words spoken. But understanding occurs without comprehension as described in this Zen mondō: A Zen master, taking a walk with his disciple along a pond on a beautiful day, said, “Look, how happy those fish are in the pond, ”and the disciple retorted, 'Master, you are not a fish, so you cannot really know if they are happy or not’. The Master then replied, “You are not me, so how do you know what I had in my mind when I said what I said.”  Compassion enables us to empathize and trust what was meant by what was said though ultimately we can never be sure. 

To say that a mynah or a parrot talks means that it imitates sonically the human speech.  When we humans try to imitate the sounds made by birds and beasts, our effort is onomatopoeia and it is a crude approximation, like “meow,” “oink,” and “tweet tweet.”   A mynah does not merely imitate spoken words but the pitch and tone, as well as the timbre, of the vocalized phrase it has been taught to repeat by its trainer. If we had this capacity to imitate we will learn to speak a foreign language without any accent. A child learns its mother tongue by close imitation, much closer than an adult can trying to speak a foreign language but still not as close as a mynah or parrot.  When we think a mynah is talking when it is only repeating the sound, we are acting anthropomorphically and think by compassion that we are being understood.  Seen in this light, we can consider that the Yogini is communicating with her mynah in this image, and in so understanding we are in turn reading the picture compassionately.  So, the bird, momentarily appearing supine but more likely upright, SEEMS as though it is making a tremendous effort to communicate with his yogini, and therefore the yogini in turn SEEMS as though she is contemplating without responding directly to the bird’s beckon and yet understand it compassionately.  This may be ultimately the meaning of the painting.  Reading an image is quite like reading the mind of another.   

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Kentridge Masters Lulu

The opera Lulu at the Met in its new production by William Kentridge was an exuberant spectacle, dominantly his than of its composer Alban Berg.  Despite Marlis Petersen’s superb performance in the title role, both in singing and acting, and the powerful music under the direction of Lothat Koenigs replacing indisposed James Levine, what remained in memory was the dynamic stage display of Kentridge’s design, rapidly and incessantly changing sets composed of fragmented flats, video images, placards, masks, and the brushed drawings in process coming out of Kentridge’s own hands.  The belief underlying the production, no doubt, is opera as Gesamtkunstwerk as conceived by Richard Wagner.  I contend nonetheless that what distinguishes opera from other forms of music theater is singing to which other artistic endeavors are certainly not to be subservient but stay eager participants.  Kentridge’s so-called chamber opera at BAM earlier, Refuse the Hour, was this artist’s similarly dense multimedia spectacle but it succeeded totally because he was his own ringmaster.

It dealt with a complex idea of time, temporarity, and memory, resulting from his consultation and collaboration with the physicist Peter Galison, and the ensemble of dance, music, and singing performed on stage and the remote-controlled set of drums suspended from the loft, and Kentridge’s own sketches and collages and film clips, together with his recitation of the libretto text he wrote, worked dramatically together to expose the mystery of time — time arrested, reversed, accelerated, decelerated, elasticized, fragmented, and otherwise distorted.

But the spectacle similarly overlaid and orchestrated was just too much for an opera production, domineering our attention excessively.  Kentridge also introduced two extraneous non-singing characters, non-singing, therefore, additional visual distractions, a butler character who flittered across the stage every so often and a young woman, nominally a pianist, who sprawled on the piano most of the time and occasionally making choreographed poses.  What I found sorely missing is the clearly defined mise-en-scene for the three acts, set successively in Vienna, Paris, and London, marking Lulu’s progressive degradation.  After several viewings, with the visual novelty wearing out, we may learn to pay less attention to the stage and concentrate on the music and singing.  But I suspect it will take more than a few years of repeat performance.  William Kentridge is a great artist, visionary and inventive in his conceit, broad and profound in his socio-political perspectives, and most adroit in realizing them.  His work on Shostakovich’s opera The Nose was admirable no less than his earlier efforts Il ritorno d’Ulisse and Die Zauberflöte. It is a pity that there was no one to restrain him in this latest effort.